THE LAST SOGDIANS OF THE YAGHNOB VALLEY

The narrow and barren Yaghnob Valley lies hidden among the rugged mountains of Western Tajikistan and it’s known among ethnologists and historians alike as the homeland of the last living descendant of the ancient Sogdia, the very same civilisation against which Alexander the Great lead one his latest military campaigns.

The Yaghnobis are one of those former Soviet Central Asia’s ethnic minorities seemingly untouched by the course of the centuries. To the eyes of the casual visitor life here appears to follow the same old rhythms of a timeless past. There is no public transportation whatsoever to connect this remote valley with the rest of the country and a strenuous six-hour four-wheel drive on bumpy potholed dirt tracks is the only way to reach the stone villages of the Yaghnobis and their scant wheat fields clinging on steep mountain slopes.

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Behind this romantic façade of bucolic isolation hides, however, a dramatic history of ethnic cleansing, persecutions and forced emigration. As many other small-numbered indigenous people of the former Soviet Union, the Yaghnobis faced a carrot-and-stick treatment by the authorities, who saw these traditional cultures and their simple natural economies as an obstacle for the growth of the country. The first wave of repressions came inevitably during Stalin’s Great Purge and led to many Yaghnobis being exiled, but it was only in the late 50s that a systematic mass exodus of the whole Yaghnobi population was forcibly carried out.

Citing an imminent danger of landslides the Soviet authorities hastily evacuated with trucks and helicopters the entire valley relocating the mountain-dwelling Yaghnobis to the hot plains of Northern Tajikistan. Here they were employed as day labourers for the ever-growing Central Asia’s cotton industry. 

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“We lost not only our homes, our fields and our mountains. Our whole culture was annihilated” said Mubinjon Asimov, an elderly Yaghnobi herder living with his two sons in Gharmen, a hamlet of less than twenty souls in the upper valley. “We couldn’t use our native language in public and by the time we were allowed to come back to this valley only few us were still able to speak Yaghnobi.”

Despite the sufferings endured in Soviet times there is a certain sense of nostalgia that shines through the words of Mubinjon “When the Soviet Union fell apart some of us believed it was time for our cultural and social redemption. Little has changed, however. Beside the fact that today nobody cares where what we speak or where we live, I would actually say that things are much worse now than ever before. In the Soviet Union we were at least part of a functioning state and no matter how they crushed us culturally, we could benefit of a certain degree of social and economic facilitations. Now the state is all but nonexistent and not a single kopek has been invested in this valley. Once we were repressed now we are forgotten. Our recent past has been a dark one, but our future looks even bleaker”.

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Words and images by USSR-obsessed photojournalist and proud Soviet-Tours founder Gianluca Pardelli. See more of his works at gianlucapardelli.com, on Instagram @gianluca_pardelli and on Facebook at @gianlucapardelliphotoDiscover with us the unique culture and secretive traditions of the Yaghnobis